Mind-controlled technology has been a mainstay of science fiction for many decades, yet soon enough it could become a reality – at least on the battlefield.
On 17 July, the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) announced that it has begun selecting research teams to develop a “neural interface” whereby troops would be able to operate (and receive feedback from) military systems with nothing but their own brains.
According to DARPA, the Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology (or simply N3) programme – scheduled to conclude within the next four years – aims to combine the processing capacity of computers with the human ability to adapt to complex situations.
Needless to say, our ancestors have been honing their everyday tools for millennia, making them evermore sophisticated, yet even the systems we have at our disposal today require some form of physical means to control them.
“What neural interfaces promise is a richer, more powerful and more natural experience in which our brains effectively become the tool,” said AL Emondi, Programme Manager at DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office.
The programme is scheduled to comprise two equally significant parts: the development of non-invasive systems which do not require any direct intervention within the human body, and the design of minutely invasive systems which may necessitate the users to ingest specific chemicals to allow external sensors to read their brain activity.
Privacy (and cognitive autonomy) issues aside, the bi-directional interfaces of the future could provide military personnel with the ability to effortlessly control battle drones or remotely deployed robots, or even to monitor different parts of a computer network using their physical bodies as sensors.
With the highest cyber-security and health and safety principles in mind, selected teams will develop neural interfaces to imbue the users with a form of synaesthesia – allowing them to, say, “hear” a cyber-attack, or to experience it in some other fundamentally embodied way.
The new interfaces are likely to become a rather bigger deal than merely a novel way of controlling a piece of machinery. “As we approach a future in which increasingly autonomous systems will play a greater role in military operations, neural interface technology can help war-fighters build a more intuitive interaction with these systems,” concluded Emondi.